[This is the complete prepared text of The Internet Shiur. Subscribe in the form at the bottom or right of this page to be notified of updates. The text can be downloaded in PDF format here: link. Download the handouts here: link. Click on the images below to enlarge. The video and text of this shiur are copyright 2012 by Gil Student. All rights are reserved. Please e-mail to obtain permission to republish.]
I. The Blessing of the Internet
My name is Rabbi Gil Student and I am here to discuss with you the internet and its role in a frum adult’s life. I have been writing about these topics for years and, on the request of my friends ,have put many of the ideas together into one big speech. But these are not just my views. Rav Yaakov Kamenetsky was once asked how he taught his children to recite berachos, blessings, properly. He answered that he did not teach them. Rather, he and his wife would say the blessings loudly and properly, allowing the kids to learn by observing the correct behavior. But what do you do when something totally new arrives? When you can’t learn from your parents or teachers because they never faced these issues? You learn from the attitudes and worldview they taught you. That is how we have to treat the internet. Not with fear but with the cautious confidence we learned from our parents and teachers, cautious of the pitfalls but confident in the strength of Yiddishkeit.
We can’t possibly cover everything but we will address some tough topics: Is the internet lechatchilah or bedieved, meaning is it a positive opportunity or a necessary evil? Should you let your kids access the internet? Can a man and woman who are not married communicate online? What do you do about the shmutz on the internet? And much more. This is a daunting task for many reasons, not least of which is that I am a writer and not a polished speaker. However, despite the halachic complexities of which I cannot claim expertise and the reality that there are many different sub-communities within the Orthodox community, I will put my ideas out there and let you decide whether they are worthy. I am sure that some listeners have different views than I do. What a wonderful community we have that can tolerate multiple perspectives! Before I begin, I need to thank all those who have encouraged me and the many rabbis, therapists, techies and laymen who have reviewed the text on which this talk is based. I particularly thank my rebbe Rav Menachem Genack for his support and review of an earlier draft of this text. While many of you have already heard most of what I am about to say from others more qualified and eloquent than I am, some will consider what I say radical. I alone take full responsibility for my words. I just ask that you defer to the written text over my off-the-cuff formulations.
The Value of Internet
The good news is that the internet is safer today than ever before. Family advocates have made great strides in creating safe online environments for kids and adults, and have created tools that allow for safe usage of the internet. Many schools, including some yeshivas, use the web for educational purposes, allowing kids to broaden their horizons and harness the resources of the world in controlled environments.
A few years ago, you could easily avoid the internet without problem. Today you can do it with some inconvenience. But that is all about to change. Phone books are being phased out because of the unnecessary cost. Pretty soon you will not be able to get monthly statements in the mail for your bank accounts, credit cards and investment accounts. A few years ago, paperless delivery of statements was a benefit. Now banks are offering incentives to customers who receive online statements. Soon they will charge for the luxury and eventually discontinue it entirely. We might be grandfathered in but our children and grandchildren will never know what it is like to receive monthly statements in the mail. In just a few years’ time, you will not be able to open a bank account, credit card or investment account without regular internet access. The internet is now a part of daily life and the two are becoming more and more intertwined as the years pass. This is not a bad thing! Not only does it save trees and millions of dollars of expense, it contributes greatly to the economies of Israel and the US. But we have to deal with the fact that the internet is here to stay. I am very skeptical of overblown claims of paradigm shifts by enthusiastic advocates. But what sounded like hype ten years ago is now a reality. Right now you can barely function in modern society without internet access and pretty soon you will be entirely unable to function.
The answer does not lie in public internet access, whether at libraries or special internet cafes. Your financial information is too sensitive to display there. Pirtzah korah le-ganav! That is an invitation to identity theft. Even if this was possible, I submit that the internet is not something we should try to avoid. Quite the opposite, we should embrace it. Many of us were raised in a world where hobbies and outside interests were encouraged, all knowledge was treasured and intellectual openness dominated. I once asked a prominent posek, a halachic authority whose shul I attended, the following question. I’m not mentioning him by name because he certainly would not agree with everything I am saying but those who know my personal history know who I mean. The halachah is that we are not allowed to make or own a three-dimensional image of a person. However, the Taz follows the Ramban who forbids two-dimensional pictures as well. I asked this halachic authority whether I should be strict for the Taz and he responded in horror. He did not say that, if so, we would encounter trouble with family pictures. He asked me how we could own encyclopedias if we are strict like the Taz. I was surprised because I did not own an encyclopedia at the time and still do not. But he assumed that as an intellectually curious Torah student–at the time I was learning in kollel–I would of course want an encyclopedia. We are an “am chacham ve-navon.” Of course we want all the wisdom available!
Today there are no more encyclopedias. Britannica only publishes an online version and Wikipedia, despite all its flaws, is the primary source for many seekers. We certainly need to be educated consumers of knowledge, recognizing the limitations of online information and that even experts can be wrong. But with all those caveats, we have to recognize that the internet is the greatest repository of knowledge in human history. Not just abstract subjects like philosophy and science but chess strategies and gardening advice and practical information on how to fix cars and everything imaginable. How can we stay away? How can we deny access to someone intellectually curious? Imagine living in ancient Alexandria and being taken to its great library. Your teacher sits you down on a bench and tells you not to read anything. Would you listen? How can we stay away from the internet, which is the greatest library in all of history? Its knowledge spans all four corners of the globe.
Additionally, thousands of people learn Torah daily thanks to the internet, whether by reading original material, downloading shiurim, lectures, or interacting with other Torah students. There are even two web-based yeshivas that I know of, probably more. Thanks to the internet, I can listen to audios of my rosh yeshiva and feel like I am back in yeshiva. I can even listen to speakers from other communities–Ashkenazic, Sephardic, Litvish, Chasidish and more–across the spectrum. I can read original Torah insights emanating from all over the world and interact with serious Torah learners who add immensely to my study. Perhaps most importantly, thanks to HebrewBooks.org and similar sites, I have access through my computer to a greater library of Torah works than exists in any single yeshiva anywhere in the world. I used to hear stories about Rav Ahron Soloveichik in his youth carrying around a suitcase full of sefarim for reference. Thanks to my iPad, I literally carry around with me over 100 downloaded sefarim without the physical strain. I cannot think of a greater vehicle for harbatzas haTorah, dissemination of the Torah, than the internet.
But the internet comes with danger which we need to discuss openly. Looking at shmutz–pornography–is assur mide’oraisa, biblically forbidden. We say twice a day in Shema “ve-lo sasuru acharei levavchem ve-acharei einechem,” that you may not stray after your hearts and after your eyes. Looking at shmutz is an aveirah and a dangerous one, because it can easily become addictive. You must, absolutely must, avoid shmutz. Friends, people sin; we’re human. But religious people stop the sin. That is teshuvah. If you’ve looked at shmutz you must do teshuvah and stop before it takes over your life. Install a filter, commit to not bypassing it and move on with your life.
If you cannot stop, then you have a real problem. Addiction, obsession, destroys lives. If you obsess over shmutz and cannot stop then you have a problem and must immediately contact a therapist. They get these calls all the time and know what to do. There is nothing to be embarrassed about. Just call one and say you need help. If you do not, you will lose everything you value in your life. Obsession with shmutz will destroy your marriage, your career, your relationship with your kids, your self-respect and your relationship with Hashem. If you can stop looking at shmutz, you must stop. If you cannot, call a therapist immediately and save what you can of your life.
Dangerous obsession is not limited to shmutz. We spend way too much time in front of screens. You may not realize how that affects your real life but it does. You need to keep track of how much time outside of work you spend in front of a screen on any day–computer, mobile, tablet, TV, any screen except for reading books offline. Every night approximate how many hours you spent that day in front of a screen. After a few days, you will probably be horrified and will try to cut back. If you cannot cut back, you may have a problem. A real problem like that can also destroy your life. If you are obsessive about screen time, you will be neglecting the real people in your world–your husband or wife, children, friends, boss, colleagues. You might lose your family and your job. Internet addiction–even without the shmutz–is a real problem. If you cannot cut back on your screen time, call a therapist. They know about this problem and can help you. Do it now before your life suffers. Your family members need you to pay attention to them, to talk to them and listen to their problems. Your wife or husband needs your loving attention. You need to live in this reality and not virtual reality.
Even if you don’t have a problem, or you don’t think you have a problem, you still need to look for warning signs. Do you spend more time with a computer, outside of work, than with people? Do you constantly think about the time you spend online? Do you prefer being online to being with the people in your life? You might have a problem.
There are ways to change. One suggestion is to turn off the buzzing on your mobile device. You don’t need to know every time you receive an e-mail. For most people, the e-mails can wait until until you set aside time to check. And try something even more radical–turn off the ringer on your mobile phone. The phone call can wait. Focus on what you are doing offline. Read! In fact, maybe you should match your reading to offset your time online. While a one-for-one relationship might be asking too much, try reading each day for half the time you spend online outside of work. If it’s three hours online, then read for an hour and a half. This will help you in four ways: 1) You’ll keep track of how much time you spend online, which as we already discussed is important. 2) You’ll read more. Wonderful! 3) You’ll find that you can’t read that much and will be forced to cut back on your time online. Also good. And 4) It will help you retain the ability to focus.
Many have commented on the internet’s contribution to a shrinking attention span. When you spend all your time flitting from web page to web page, you get used to quick thoughts rather than dwelling on a thought. It isn’t necessarily wrong but it is a different way of thinking. We all knew kids who couldn’t sit still or focus on any task for more than a few minutes. Maybe you were that kid. Now we are all becoming him. However, if you read a lot–books, journals, newspapers, magazines, even on a screen if you deactivate all distractions–you can preserve your ability to focus. You don’t have to let the internet change you and the way you think.
As frum Jews, we have two other ways to break away from the internet. The first is the most obvious–Shabbos. We are blessed with one day a week when we cannot check our e-mails, answer our phones or go online. Enjoy the freedom. Another way, which I find equally important, is the obligation to set aside times each day to study Torah. Kevi’as itim la-Torah is the antidote to the web. For one or two hours a day, or more, you must put away your gadgets or at least turn off all notifications and learn Torah. Please, for your own sake, don’t check your mobile devices during that time. Focus on the Torah. Not only will your learning improve but your independence from the internet will grow.
We’ve already discussed this but we should mention it again. Your family needs you. Your wife or husband and kids want your attention. Turn off the computer, put away your mobile, and go read your child a book. And if you are single, don’t develop habits that will lead to a dysfunctional family life. Don’t turn into an internet hermit.
Despite these very real dangers, and there are others, we cannot and should not avoid the internet which Hashem has blessed us with. We must move forward, accepting the good aspects and rejecting the bad.
II. Internet Behavior
I only had the merit once of meeting Rav Henoch Leibowitz, the rosh yeshiva of Chofetz Chaim, but I’ll never forget his answer to a question he was asked. We are taught in yeshiva that our goal in life is to learn Torah and that is what we do for most of our time while in yeshiva. Then one day we leave yeshiva and go out into the workplace, and we spend most of our day on mundane things. We work long and hard and then come home, take care of our families, and struggle to learn for a short while, on good days an hour or two. How are we supposed to process this? What are we supposed to be thinking in order to make meaning out of our lives? Rav Henoch could have answered that we are working hard to support our families and provide our children with a Torah education. Or he could have said that we are helping build and sustain society, yishuv ha-olam. But he didn’t go in those directions. Instead he suggested, and I’m told he said this often, that we view every moment in the workplace as an opportunity to make a Kiddush Hashem. Every relationship we develop, every interaction we have, is an opportunity to sanctify Hashem’s name and live a life of holy mission even while in the workplace. This is a profoundly meaningful teaching that rings true on many levels. It also applies to your activity on the internet.
In theory, using your name when writing on the internet is the best policy. It keeps you accountable. It ensures, at least to a large extent, that you stand behind what you write and act on your best behavior. But in reality we have many good reasons to remain anonymous. Sometimes our jobs prevent us from publicly taking controversial positions so we do it anonymously. And sometimes we are worried about people looking down on us, failing to understand the context or simply stalking us for whatever their reasons. We live in a tight-knit community where conformity is assumed and failing to toe the line can have serious social consequences. Personally, I don’t care and that’s why I’m not anonymous. But many people do care and I understand why.
However, that very freedom of anonymity can cause problems. Without the social restraints, we lose our inhibitions. We say things we would not otherwise say. We attack people, insult them, reveal their secrets, discuss their behavior. This is all wrong and we know it. But the anonymity can be intoxicating. We need to remember two things: First, there is no such thing as anonymity. It is all an illusion. Everything online can be traced. Let me repeat: Everything online can be traced. Maybe no one will do it right now because they have no need. But something online is there forever and maybe in a year or five or ten someone will desire to track down your history for whatever reason and they will be able to. No matter how flawless you think your anonymous technology is today, and most people don’t even know enough to make such an evaluation, but regardless technology progresses so quickly that in a year or two the tools may be available to unmask you. You are never truly anonymous online. Second, and more important, Hashem sees you. Kol maasecha ba-sefer nichtavim! Everything you post online is recorded in Heaven and after 120 years you will be brought to judgment for every single word.
And finally, when you post under your name you represent yourself and your family. When you post anonymously, you have an even greater responsibility because you represent the entire community. When you attack someone in an anonymous blog post, you could be anyone. You could be me or my neighbor or your mother or your rabbi. When you act improperly anonymously, we all act improperly. You embarrass the entire community. You are making a colossal Chillul Hashem. Do not make the mistake of thinking that our blogs and news sites and other websites are internal to our community. You could not be more mistaken. Those websites are read by many outside of our community. Your behavior, your crass comments, your insults, your nastiness is a massive Chillul Hashem. You embarrass me and everyone else in our community.
But when you post with kindness and generosity and show sterling character traits, and you raise us all up. You are fulfilling Rav Henoch’s instructions and making a Kiddush Hashem. Please, for all our sake, before you press send or submit on your e-mail or text or blog post or comment or Tweet or any internet dealings, ask yourself whether it will serve as a Kiddush Hashem, whether you are choosing the proper route in representing the frum community. Here’s a simple rule of thumb: Imagine that everything you send or post will be published on the front page of the New York Times under your byline, with your picture as a visibly frum Jew. Only press send if you are OK with that.
III. Internet Relationships
As we just discussed, everything on the internet is traceable. Therefore, you have to be extremely careful about protecting your personal information. Anything you say in your own name will be forever attributed to you. If you are not careful, criminals may be able to find enough information in different places to steal your identity. Never post important information in public–social security numbers, credit card numbers, bank account numbers, your mother’s maiden name, anything that can be used to obtain access to your accounts. Do not even put it into an e-mail because it may be somehow intercepted. Only use that information online on secure websites, preferably from companies you know and respect.
Websites, particularly social media, will try to convince you to share your personal life online. Be very careful about this. Do not overshare. You will eventually regret it. When you apply for a job, potential employers may Google you and discover what you have done online. Be careful to protect your personal issues–don’t complain about a problem child or nasty divorce–because you may have to explain that at a later date. Don’t post embarrassing pictures of yourself. Too many people have committed that error because it is so easy to post something on the spur of the moment. But once something is online it is there forever. You can never delete it. Hitting the delete button is an illusion because once it is out there, it is saved somewhere. You can never fully retrieve it.
And that is why it is so important that you respect your children’s privacy. Do not discuss them online or even mention their names explicitly. Anything that allows Google to find them, whether today or ten years in the future, hurts them. Not only might you embarrass them, you may ruin their chances of landing a particular job or dating a specific girl or boy. Do not run the risk of ruining your children’s lives. Do not share their information.
This is something your children also need to learn and is a crucial reason why they must be limited in their access to social media. Children lack the emotional maturity to protect their own privacy. They do not have the life experience and the patience to prepare for the rest of their lives and are therefore at risk of accidentally oversharing. We will talk shortly about keeping your children safe online but it bears mentioning here that social media is particularly dangerous for them for precisely this reason. They might post silly pictures or information about themselves which their friends and classmates may mercilessly tease. Or they may reveal information about their location that others can use. Or they may disclose personal details that will affect their future careers and shidduchim. For all these reasons, children need to be taught about the importance of internet privacy, monitored on social media and maybe–my preference–kept off of social media altogether. As we will discuss, this all depends on their personal circumstances. In this new era in which we live, you must have this conversation about privacy with your children early and often.
Real Life Relationships
We discussed earlier the problem of internet addiction. Even if you are not addicted, you need to recognize the potential of neglecting your real life relationships. The internet is great for enhancing friendships by adding new dimensions but it should never replace them. It is an add-on to your life, not a replacement. You need the people in your neighborhood, the people with whom you grew up, the people you see every day. The people in real life are the people in your life. If you ignore them, if you fail to develop those relationships, you will eventually realize that your life is empty. And don’t forget about your spouse and children. They need your attention. They need you to listen when they talk and look at their eyes rather than your screen. They want to hear about your day and your thoughts, not just the bare minimum it takes to get rid of them. If you can’t put away your screen and pay attention to your family, you will permanently damage those precious relationships.
I want to discuss something extremely sensitive and important but also somewhat ambiguous: tzenius, modesty in our interaction with the opposite gender. Tzenius is not only about how you dress but also–primarily–about how you act. The prophet tells us “ve-hatznei’a leches,” and you should go modestly, act modestly, interact modestly. Here is a simple rule of thumb that is vague but easy: When interacting online with members of the opposite gender, act the way you would in real life. Standards vary greatly by community. In some places, men and women speak with each other freely and at length. In other communities, they never speak with each other. Most frum communities are somewhere in between. If you wouldn’t speak with a woman other than your wife, don’t e-mail, Tweet or Facebook one either. Personally, I speak to women but not too much at length and that is also how I interact online.
The danger is real. Even though we just finished discussing how online relationships aren’t real, they often appear to be real. If and when you are having marital problems, which happens to everyone at some point, you also have a delightful online relationship with a member of the opposite gender that seems real, you have a recipe for disaster. Beware and avoid such problems. Do not develop any special relationships with members of the opposite gender. Treat such online interactions as you would in-person interactions. Keep it casual and if you detect any special feelings, walk away before you get caught in a web that could destroy your family. Most importantly, don’t do anything or communicate with anybody whom you wouldn’t tell your husband or wife about. And even better, actually tell them.
IV. Internet Speech
They say that when Abraham Lincoln was particularly angry, he wrote a letter in response and placed it in his drawer. He waited until the next day, reread it and threw it in the fire. In that way, he avoided sending a letter that he would later regret. This story perfectly illustrates why lashon hara, damaging speech, is easier to avoid in writing than in speech. When we speak, we have no time to reconsider. Once the words come out of our mouths, they are gone forever. We can apologize and try to make amends but we can never take back those words. With writing, we can reread the words and reconsider whether we really want to send them. For this reason, in theory lashon hara should be less of a problem on the internet.
In my experience, this theory is not born out in practice. Lashon hara is as big a problem, if not bigger, on the internet as in speech. But it doesn’t have to be that way. I appeal to you to follow President Lincoln’s example. Words can cause real harm. They can not only cause social and psychological harm but also damage someone’s livelihood. How can a religious Jew risk doing that rather than following the halachah? And the halachah is not particularly complicated or difficult!
There will rarely be a time when you have permission to reveal negative information about a private individual. Frankly, in general you shouldn’t be discussing private individuals on the internet anyway. Respect their privacy just like you want your own privacy respected.
When dealing with public figures and institutions, keep in mind that while you may certainly subject them to public scrutiny, you have to do it with great honesty and generosity of spirit. You have to go out of your way to find ways to justify their behaviors, as we all know from stories of being dan lechaf zechus, judging favorably. Those aren’t just stories! They are supposed to be models for our own behavior. You need to look for a way to understand someone’s actions in a positive way. However, don’t get me wrong. There is certainly room to disagree and even to suggest better ways of doing things. But how often do you see a generosity of spirit on the internet? How often do you see people being dan lechaf zechus? Not often enough.
This is all in writing. You have the opportunity to reread your words before submitting them. Please, do what is right. Think carefully. Look for ways to be dan lechaf zechus. You can still disagree but do it with kindness. Again, make the Kiddush Hashem. Do what is right.
When it comes to uncovering wrongdoing, the internet is frankly all we’ve got and I support that. How often do frum newspapers unmask financial impropriety or abuse? All we have is the internet. But I call upon you, the anonymous internet users, to use that power of accusation responsibly. A false accusation can destroy someone’s life so you have to be very careful with your aim. If you have information about a crime, don’t blog about it. Go to the police. Immediately. Go. To. The. Police. If your information is not good enough for the police, then you must decide the most responsible next step.
I have seen potential accusers who were convinced that they had good information about a crime but they almost always seemed to me to be a bit delusional, wrapped up in their own world and not entirely grounded in reality. I suggest that if your evidence isn’t enough to go to the police then you find a rabbi–he doesn’t have to be your local rabbi, just someone whose judgment you respect and religious values you share–and ask him for advice. This is serious business. Additionally, too often anonymous accusations accomplish the exact opposite of your intent and allow the accused to gather sympathy for being the subject of an internet attack. Is that what you want to do? If you don’t go to the police, then you really need to think long and hard about how to do it right. Watchdogs play an important role in our community but they need to be smart and responsible.
Reading Lashon Hara
The rest of us face a different dilemma. Even if we are careful and do not post lashon hara, we still have to avoid reading it. You learn quickly from experience which blogs and websites have lashon hara and which don’t. The simple answer is to avoid the websites where you have experienced or expect problems. It really isn’t that hard. Some people have acquired a distaste for lashon hara and will automatically avoid those websites. And some people have developed a desire for it, and therefore know exactly where to find it. If you have that desire, use it as a tool. It will tell you exactly where to find the lashon hara and those are the websites to avoid. If you really want to go someplace for the juicy gossip, that’s your sign to avoid it.
And when you do come across lashon hara, be smart about it. Be skeptical. Newspaper stories are sometimes untrue. Kal va-chomer anonymous web accusations. I’ve seen too many irresponsible accusations to automatically believe them. And I’ve seen vicious people use the internet to falsely accuse good people, or even worse to distort the truth and taint perfectly normal behavior to fit into some paranoid conspiracy theory. Be smart, be skeptical, and do your best to stay away.
Bullying & Insulting
Ona’as Devarim is saying hurtful things about someone. For teenagers, this is part and parcel of internet behavior. It is forbidden and it is dangerous. It can drive insecure kids into great depression. One of the topics you need to discuss with your children is how careful they must be not to criticize other kids online. This could be a matter of life and death for some kid and your child does not want carry around that kind of responsibility or guilt.
Imagine someone who spends hours designing a graphic picture, posts it online, and someone immediately comments “That’s horrible.” He just spent hours on it and in a matter of seconds the commenter has crushed his spirit. Why? That is not how a refined person acts. That is, pardon my language, how a jerk acts. Show sensitivity and if you need to criticize, do it with accompanying praise that genuinely acknowledges the person’s effort.
When taken to an extreme, that kind of criticism becomes bullying. Kids can be merciless and when the insults are piled on and the artist is continually crushed, that is bullying. It is a real danger of the internet. Your children need to know that that kind of behavior is dangerous and can scar someone for life, or worse. Teach your kids Hillel’s golden rule: Don’t do to others what you don’t want them to do to you. They need to learn the sensitivity to other people’s emotions that the Torah demands. This is an important teaching moment for your children.
Additionally, everything we just said about kids applies to adults. Show sensitivity. Don’t criticize harshly and unnecessarily. Don’t insult people. Keep in mind that their mothers might see what you write about them. Their children too. Show some compassion and be a mensch.
V. Internet Safety
We started by mentioning that the web is safer today than ever before. A large part of that improvement is the availability of filters. But first I have to say that there are two types of people who use the internet: those who are looking for trouble and those who aren’t. If you are looking for trouble, there is no technology that can stop you from finding it. No filter will be entirely successful. But if you aren’t looking for trouble, filters are an important part of protecting you from accidentally stumbling onto inappropriate material and also from withstanding the occasional temptation to do the wrong thing. As we discuss filters and anything else, we have to remember that technology changes quickly. New devices and other developments need to be evaluated on their own. But the very web that poses challenges also offers information on how to deal with them, on parenting and technology websites. We’re going to get a little technical, just a little, but ion’t worry if it is too much for you. We’ll sum everything up in the end with specific recommendations.
As of today, there are three methods of filtering: time control, content filtering and content control. Time control sets limits on the time when internet access is available. For example, you can allow it only between the hours of 8 and 9pm every day or on Sundays from 3 to 5pm. This can help prevent overuse of the internet and also ensure that people only access the internet when others are likely to be awake and may walk into the room.
Content filtering blocks websites that are deemed objectionable and can be done with either black lists or white lists. Black lists contain addresses for offensive websites that are also blocked. Often, filters allow you to add your own list of blocked sites, such as if you want to block SportsIllustrated.com if it is not already blocked. They also allow you to choose entire categories to block or allow, such as social networking and gambling. White lists assume that the entire internet is blocked except for the sites contained in this list. Each website must be approved before passing through the filter. Using a white list you can, in theory, allow only AccuWeather.com and JewishPress.com, so you can only check the weather and your favorite Jewish newspaper and nothing else.
Content control actively changes objectionable content on a website. It may block pictures or change profane words to a string of punctuation marks. Ad blocking software is an important example of content control. Through a simple browser add-on or filter feature, you can block all ads on a page. This is crucial because I would estimate that 80% of the inappropriate pictures on the web, the pictures of women immodestly dressed in a way that is acceptable to general society but not to frum people, are advertisements. If you get rid of the ads, you’ve solved a lot of the problem. What do you do about the other 20%? There are a few options.
First, don’t look at the picture. Scroll away or otherwise cover it. If that isn’t possible, some websites allow you to see a printable version of whatever you are reading, which is text only, or you can copy the text and paste it into a word processor. Some versions of Ad Blocker allow you to block all images on a specific site. Try right-clicking and playing with the options. Personally, I use a free service called Instapaper which saves text for reading later. I hit my Instapaper bookmark to save the text is and then I go to the Instapaper website where I can read a text-only version of the web page. There are other similar services you can use.
There are four types of filter structures for consumers: browser-side, client-side, router-side and ISP-side. A browser-side filter is either a web browser or a browser add-on that limits your access to the web in any of the three methods discussed above. In order for these to be effective, users–your spouse and children–must have limited ability to install and uninstall add-ons and new programs. Otherwise, they can easily disable the filtering capabilities or install an unfiltered browser or other program that accesses the web.
A client-side filter is installed on a computer and limits all access to the web from that computer. These sometimes slow the computer but they are harder to deactivate than browser-side filters and regulate all programs on the computer. A router-side filter also limits the internet access received by a customer, including wireless connections in the house. Unlike an ISP-side filter, the customer installs this. A DNS filter is somewhat similar but these are pretty complicated so if you don’t know what I’m talking about, it probably isn’t for you.
An ISP-side filter limits the internet access provided to a customer by the internet service provider. If the ISP successfully blocks content, the customer cannot access it through any program, on any device. These filters require a special internet provider that usually lacks the same scale of operation, and therefore cheap prices, as the large, unfiltered internet services. It also only works when using that ISP and not when accessing the web through wifi and mobile outside your home or office.
Another function many filters provide is the ability to monitor online activity. There are three types of activities often monitored: website visits, search terms and social network activity. The results can either be saved and available for an administrator to look at or sent via e-mail to the administrator. The latter includes “buddy” monitoring, in which a user selects someone to receive a detailed list of online activity. Don’t put too much faith in these because it is very easy to go to one website and then within that site to go to another, without the monitor registering the second site. Anyone with Google can figure out how to fool a web monitor.
Social network monitoring is particularly important for parents who wish to make sure their children are not oversharing information that should be kept private. The filter keeps track of information posted to social networks, looking for key words that may indicate the user is either sharing too much personal information or discussing with someone inappropriate boy-girl activities.
All browser-based and client-side filters allow an administrator to override the blocking by entering a password. If you find a site that you believe is unobjectionable to be blocked, you enter your password to access it by overriding the filter’s control. This means that you must guard your password and change it regularly. Do not let your children see you type it in or give them any clue by which they can discover it. If you do, you have compromised your entire filtering system. Additionally, you absolutely must keep your operating system and anti-virus software up to date. Otherwise, intruders can force all sorts of images and links onto your computer. If that happens, call a technician immediately.
None of these filters will accomplish anything if a user can easily deactivate them. At a bare minimum, you have to make sure that no users have “admin” control and therefore have only limited ability to install and uninstall programs. Create a separate adminstrator account for which only you have the password and make sure that all other users have limited rights. You should also lock the BIOS, so no one can stat the computer from a disk or CD.
Kids and Internet
You should also keep your computer in a public area where anyone can walk in and see what you are doing online. However, even with all these precautions, someone looking for trouble can bypass the security. In my opinion, all kids should be considered to have a chazakah, a presumption, of looking for trouble. This means that you should not assume that the filter alone is doing the trick. We’ve already assumed a few times that you let them go online, but is that wise? Let’s be real, most kids–certainly teenagers–are looking to explore boundaries and rebel a little, sometimes a lot. Should we put weapons of self-destruction in their hands? I believe the answer must be a resounding yes-but. Kids are going to go online. If they are intellectually curious, they will certainly take a trip to the biggest library in human history. And if they are looking to play games, it’s also the biggest arcade. And it has girls and boys and movies and TV. You think you can stop them?!?
Free wifi is currently being installed throughout the country. New York has many spots–parks, libraries, Starbucks stores–where unfiltered internet access is available for free. If you don’t give your children access, they will get it elsewhere. Let them satisfy their curiosity and have their fun in a safe, controlled environment, where their loving parents often check up on them and talk to them about it. Because if they can’t see what that website their friends are discussing is all about at home, they will see it somewhere else. And if they can’t explore the biggest library in history at home, they will explore it someplace without a filter and oversight.
But you have to be smart about it. In my house, the internet is permanently blocked unless a parent unblocks it. Getting it unblocked involves answering two questions: did you finish your homework? and what websites are you going to visit? If both questions are answered satisfactorily, we always unblock the web. I don’t want my children to have to go to the house of a friend with a less responsible parent or to the library or to a friend’s iPod whose security they broke through. I’m sure I still won’t win 100% of the time but I’ve made it much more convenient to go online under parental supervision. I can’t see any other realistic option.
As already mentioned, you also need to keep computers in common areas, where the kids know you might walk in on them. And you also have to discuss with them what they are doing online and what they are not allowed to do. Nothing is more important than rules and discussion. Make a list of rules, such as no Facebook, only certain hours or no boys or girls–whatever you decide on in advance–and enforce those rules, with punishments if necessary. Explain the reasons for the rules and stick to them. And when your children ask you for permission to go online, ask them what they plan on doing. Sometimes sit beside them and do it with them. Watch whatever they are watching, play whatever they are playing. Do it with them. This is particularly important for YouTube, which I would not allow unless an adult is present. YouTube has a feature in which it suggests other videos, some of which can be very inappropriate. If you can find a browser add-on that removes them, that is preferred. But children need someone with them to help them decide which videos are appropriate. And, frankly, adults also need to be careful about not clicking on recommended YouTube videos. Only watch videos you know are appropriate.
While I think we need to allow children internet access, not on mobile devices. The technology has not yet arrived to allow for a truly secure mobile device, as we’ll discuss shortly, and it is too easy to avoid parental supervision. I believe parents have to disable all internet access on mobile devices and constantly check to make sure they remain disabled. This is not easy but there is one important trick, which we’ll discuss soon.
Should kids have access to social media like Facebook? Personally, I am not a fan of this idea. As an adult, I can use Facebook maturely, as we already discussed. I don’t interact with women more than I would in person, I don’t overshare and I stick to keeping in touch with old friends, sharing links to interesting articles and blog posts, and publicizing events that I think will interest my friends and they think will interest me. When other people overshare, I just ignore it. You can disagree, but I don’t think kids have the emotional maturity to do that properly. However, if all their friends are on Facebook, you don’t want your child to be socially isolated. Social isolation can be devastating, as the Gemara says, “O chavrusa or misusa,” which I dare not even translate. If you face that situation, you should monitor your child’s Facebook account with social media monitoring software like Net Nanny and discuss proper usage.
There is a common myth that Facebook and other online activity leads to problems of predators. A recent horrific story in our community seems to prove it. However, state attorney generals in 2008 convened an Internet Safety Technical Task Force at Harvard which extensively studied the problem and found that the overwhelming majority of horror stories are not the result of deception. I am not suggesting anything about the recent victim in our community but just making the statistical point that unless a child is going to attempt to meet someone for very, very bad things, his risk of falling victim to an online predator is minimal.
We can’t cover every parenting topic but the web has excellent resources and there are many good books. An excellent recent book is Talking Back To Facebook by James Steyers, which gives detailed parenting advice about the internet and Facebook in particular. The Net Nanny website has many good articles about parenting in the internet age and there are many other good websites.
Returning to our topic, let’s talk about mobile devices. The web browsers that are factory installed on smartphones are not filtered and cannot be filtered. The only way to use a web filter is to download a special browser like K9 or Mobicip and disable the original browser. These filtered browsers are not great. They are slower and lack some of the functionality of the standard browsers. However, the technology will get there. K9 is an excellent filtered iPad browser and iBrowse is not filtered but allows you to block ads and images. I use a combination of these browsers on my iPad, alternating depending on which website I am visiting. In my opinion, these less-than-perfect browsers will improve quickly and in the meantime the lesser performance is a price worth paying for the safety they offer. In general, because these devices are not nearly as secure as desktops and you carry them around with you rather than using them in public, you have to be very careful. You have fewer personal boundaries to breech if you are tempted.
iPhones, iPads and iPod Touches have Parental Restrictions built in. (Yes, the iPod Touch has full wifi capability and a built-in Safari web browser.) Learn how to use the Parental Restrictions so your kids cannot download inappropriate music and videos and use it to disable Safari. Delete Safari also. Just get rid of it. But be aware that these restrictions are very easy to bypass. You can find out how by Googling it and you can even watch videos on YouTube showing you each step. I consider the restrictions to be important as a sign rather than as security. If you check your child’s device and find the restrictions have been removed, you know he’s up to no good. And if they are still in place, that is a good sign.
The key to controlling mobile devices and ensuring that they do not allow web access is controlling the account. Apple devices require an iTunes account in order to purchase apps, and iTunes requires a credit card. As long as your child does not have a credit card number, he must use your iTunes account. Do not create another account for him. Instead, use that account as a safety mechanism. Set up the account so you are e-mailed any time a new app is purchased and occasionally check to see which apps have been downloaded. By doing that, you can make sure your child does not download a web browser or any other app that could take him online. The same goes for an Android device. If you control the Android Market or Google Play account, you control the apps and the ability to get online. However, this is not foolproof because he can create a new account to download free apps and some web browsers are free. So you must also periodically check the device for unfamiliar apps. See what he is doing, what games he is playing, what apps he is using.
Bottom line: We’ve discussed a number of options but if you want to keep things simple, here are some recommendations. On your computers, install K9 which is free or Net Nanny which you have to pay for. Control the administrator account on your computers and make sure other accounts cannot install or uninstall programs. On your mobile devices, disable the factory installed browser and download K9 which is free or Mobicip as browsers. On your children’s mobile devices, set strict parental restrictions, disable the web, control the iTunes or Google Play account and check their devices occasionally for unfamiliar apps. Most importantly, talk to your children about what they are doing online.
VI. Summary & Conclusion
The internet is the most powerful invention of our lifetimes. It has changed society and supported global economies. It has opened up new ways of communicating and brought previously unimaginable amounts of information to each and every one of us. Torah is now flowing through the wifi airwaves. The cumulative wisdom of human history is now available on handheld devices.
But we have to use this tool well. A filter is necessary but not enough for a kosher experience. We also need to act kosher and to think kosher. We need to learn the rules and follow them responsibly. We’ve discussed many ways to do this but no single speech can cover everything. We need to constantly learn and strive to do our best. We need to educate ourselves about technology and begin a never-ending conversation about the latest issues. You don’t have to become an expert but you do have to become conversant. You need to know what questions to ask and whom to ask.
We need to act with the sterling character traits we were taught so we model a Kiddush Hashem to the world and to our children. And we need to teach our children how to use the internet responsibly. I pray that our yeshivas will partner with parents to teach our kids about responsible internet usage. We need to work together! And perhaps shuls and community organizations should offer classes on internet skills so we can all move forward into this new era responsibly and turn this world full of wisdom, “u-malah ha-aretz de’ah” into “u-malah ha-aretz de’ah es Hashem.”
We are fortunate to live in such blessed times. Let us rise to the occasion and use this magnificent tool the way Hashem wants us to.